The New York Times published an article about Han Han last week. In the article, Graham Lee, a Hong Kong native studying in Peking University was quoted saying “His way of thinking is different from that of ordinary Chinese.”
At first glance, this sentence sounds offensive. How do ordinary Chinese think? However, thinking for a second, I am not surprised that he felt this way.
In any other country, I don’t think Han Han would be that special. His criticisms and the courage to challenge authority, even the having the balls to drop out of high school, are common characteristics of young people around the world. He is a very good writer, that’s for sure, but in most places his writing wouldn’t be enough to make him one of the most popular bloggers and an iconic figure. However, in China, what Han Han says and does has value.
When I was in college, I was a fan of Han Han. His books opened my eyes and mind. For the first time in my life, I realized students could criticize and analyze profoundly the problems of the China’s education system. His words were harsh, but they were just so true.
Throughout elementary school, middle school and high school, and even in college, I thought passing exams was all that education was about. Reading books other than textbooks seemed a waste of time. And thinking about questions, rather than memorizing the expected answers on the exam, was not a required skill for getting the all-important high test scores. That was education, and I never thought about questioning what it all meant. I was one of a great number of students fed through the system. We were encouraged to obey and to follow. Anybody who challenged this system, for example dating a girl, or developing a hobby, was labeled as a problem student.
Late in my college career, after reading more books and talking with more people, I realized I spent the first 20 years of my life learning bullshit. It was all basically useless for real life. I, and hundreds of millions of students in China, had been cheated.
We don’t want to be single-minded idiots filled with minds filled by doctrines and propaganda. We love Han Han because he says what we want to say. However, it is hard for many people to speak out because their courage and their ability for independent thinking have been strangled such a long time ago. China’s education killed our chance of developing critical thinking skills and as such may well have stifled millions of other potential Han Hans.
The saddest thing is that today, millions of students in China’s education system are still suffering from the exam culture, and it’s even worse than when I was a student. Parents and teachers went through the system themselves, and they still let the same things happen to their children. However, in the big exam machine, they don’t have other options. If their children want to go to a better school and get better jobs in the future, they have to sign up for all kinds of classes and tutorials, and Olympia Maths, English courses…anything to get ahead even though it’s all completely useless, just academic hucksters looking to make a buck on the anxieties of middle class parents. Today these children are the victims of China’s educational system. Tomorrow, they will become Chinese citizens who cannot think for themselves.
Yajun (A.K.A. Mrs. Granite Studio) works in the Beijing bureau of The Christian Science Monitor. You can read her latest article for the Monitor here. Her last posts for The Granite Studio were on the recent Chinese student demonstrations in Paris and a review of Peter Hessler’s Country Driving. She would like to strongly point out that she “is not a guest” since it’s her computer. Fair point.